Chiapas Ten Years Later

Monday, December 26, 2005

Zapatista's New Direction: Zmag

The Zapatista's New Direction
Originally Published in Zmag, December 2005
Chris Arsenault


After a few years of relative quiet, relegated to their misty mountain strongholds in southern Mexico, Zapatista rebels recently tried to re-assert their presence on the international stage,
continung a unique military strategy based more on words than weapons.

Throughout July and August, during a highly publicized red-alert and a series of communiques, the Zapatistas announced a broad new political initiative-for now, called "the other campaign"-to break
out of a stalemate with government forces.

What began as a "scandalously Indian" uprising in Chiapas, Mexico's southernmost state, is metamorphosing into a "national campaign for building another way of doing politics, for a program of national struggle of the left, and for a new Constitution," according to the Sixth Declaration of the Lacondon, issued by the Clandestine Revolutionary Indigenous Committee (CCRIG), the military commanders of the Zapatistas' armed wing.

After a series of September meetings in the Zapatista strong hold of la Garrucha with 91 social organizations from throughout Mexico, 36 political organizations, 129 groups, collectives and NGO's, and 26 indigenous organizations, it was decided that a national tour should begin in January to hear from different sectors of Mexican society.

Subcommandante Marcos, the rebels iconoic mestizo pip-smoking former-spokesman (he's stepping down as spokesperson for the EZLN to work the campaign) will essentially be going it alone across Mexico consulting and listening to help build a non-parliamentary leftist movement.

It won't be the first time the Zapatistas have taken their show on the road. In 2001 the comandantes toured through Mexico, rallying for constitutional changes to guarantee indigenous rights to land and self-determination. The march was hugely popular, cumulating with a rally of 400 000 in Mexico City, but failed to gain the constitutional changes the rebels demanded. This time around the tour will have a broader focus, the politic from The Other campaign belongs "to everyone who embraces them", according to Marcos.

Politically, the timing for a national grassroots movement couldn't be better. When the Zapatistas first called NAFTA a "death sentence" in 1994, they were at odds with the majority of the Mexican
population; 68 percent of Mexicans supported the agreement. Ten years later, less than 45 percent support NAFTA, according to polls published in Business Week. The Carnegie Endowment for International Peace notes that by 2004, 1.3 million farm jobs had disappeared in Mexico, as heavily subsidized corn, pork, poultry, and other foodstuffs from the U.S. competed with products from rural communities.

Internationally, the "intergalactic committee of the EZLN" will be bringing corn and other donations to the Cuban embassy in Mexico City, in violation of the US embargo. Zapatista women's co-operatives will send woven blankets and coffee to Europeans fighting for social justice. And Zapatista GMO-free corn will be delivered to people's movements in Bolivia and Ecuador.

Moving beyond just international solidarity or national movement building, the new initiative is key to combating the line, towed by Vincent Fox's government: the Zapatistas are a revolution that
couldn't deliver.

Without headline-grabbing massacres, like the 1997 slaughter in Acteal (when 45 unarmed indigenous villagers were massacred in their church), troop incursions, or major political initiatives, the
strategy saw some success outside of Chiapas. The New York Times, which in 1994 gushed about the Zapatistas as "the first-postmodern Latin American revolution," deemed the insurgency "stalled" at the beginning of 2005: Subcomandante Marcos was co-writing a mystery novel.

Even Elena Poniatowska, Mexico's leading feminist and founder of the left-leaning La Journada newspaper, told Democracy Now in April 2005 that, "I think they [the Zapatistas] have lost power. When time goes by, you lose power."

It's remarkable that a movement of 100,000 peasants in southern Mexico (some sources on the ground estimate their number at closer to 500,000) became a lasting media phenomenon in the first place.

"Thank you for listening to the thunder of our arms on New Year's Day," said a masked representative from the Zapatista's Juntas of Buen Goberino, (good government boards), the Zapatista movement's elected civilian administrative wing, speaking to international solidarity activists from his sparse office in San Andres de Los Pobres.

The importance of a new constitution, links with other social movements, and media attention notwithstanding, what will insure their lasting survival is the Zapatistas' ability to improve the
lives of people living in their base communities. To combat the movement, the State and Federal governments use a combination of low-intensity warfare against Zapatista supporters and targeted aid for those loyal to the state.

"People in Chiapas were very poor and forgotten but the Zapatistas didn't change anything and most people have moved on. The revolution couldn't deliver," said Luis Alvarez, the Mexican government's chief negotiator for Chiapas, during a 2003 lecture at Trent University.

In some cases, Alvarez is correct. " Truthfully the situation is still the same," said the rep from San Andres (Zapatista supporters almost never give their names in interviews).

Economically, the Zapatistas are facing a dilemma, how do you get something from nothing?

When America was created it had a fewmajor advantages: foreign capital to finance development and an almost infinite supply of farm land- obviously stolen at indigenous expense, along with a huge pool of slave labor.

"At present [in 1997, but little has changed since then] some 6,000 cattle ranching families hold more than three million hectares, which is almost one half the area of the state," notes a report by
CONPAZ, the Coordination of Non-Governmental Organizations for Peace. Unless an unlikely constitutional break-thorough is reached through 'other other campaign' the Zapatistas can't move onto anymore productive ranch land without re-starting the war. Small farmers are forced to grow corn on steeped elevations eking a precarious existence from rocky soil.

And unlike other regions striving for 'development', it's unlikely the Zapatistas will get a bank loan for new capital; a 1994 memo from the Chase Manhattan Bank urging the Mexican army to, 'eliminate
the Zapatistas' elucidates how global capital evaluates those who seek alternatives. With no access to capital and no new land, the Zapatista's are in a difficult economic spot.

Still, activists, especially youth who were first involved in planning the insurgency or grew up with it, are taking on the tasks of economic development, teaching in autonomous schools with radical
pedagogy, and creating a viable health-care system.

In a 2003 report, the World Bank notes that the key to Latin American prosperity is to "Increase access by the poor to high-quality public services, especially education, health, water and electricity, as well as access to farmland and the rural services the poor need to make it productive." Ironically, the anti-capitalist Zapatistas are following the Bank's fluffy dictum's better than any of the remaining neo-liberal governments in the region.

"The biggest problem is health. Before, people in the bases of support had to pay for their own medicines, now they are free," said one Zapatista supporter after getting a check-up at the rebel-run clinic in Ovenitc Caracole, a Zapatista stronghold two hours outside
the colonial tourist city of San Cristobal de las Casas.

The clinic is a thriving example of the kinds of "high quality public services" the Zapatistas are trying to create. It prominently displays a picture of campesinos washing vegetables in river water with a large X though it. People are advised to boil water and leave limejuice and ash in their latrines to prevent dysentery and other all-too-common curable diseases. Young "promoters of health" receive medical training from Mexico City-based doctors, and have been traveling to tiny, distant communities to convey life-saving messages.

"Communities give food-beans, tortillas, and fruit-to the workers of the clinic, so the clinic decided they couldn't charge them," says Anastasio, a health promoter, community organizer, and well-known basketball talent who never attended primary school.

In Anastasio's home region of Los Altos, a rebel stronghold divided into seven administrative regions, the Zapatistas run eight micro-clinics along with the major facility in Oventic, which boasts a small operating room, dentistry equipment, herbal remedies, and an admittedly sparse pharmacy. "It isn't only the Zapatistas who don't have medicine; the government hospitals don't either," says
Anastasio.

"Women want work and markets for their art-crafts. They are being exploited by coyotes [middlemen] and need a just price for their products," said a representative from the Municipality 16 de Febrero community. Mujures por la Dignidad, one of the largest co-ops, is by self-organized women, with more than 1,000 members producing shirts, blankets, hammocks, and other weavings.

"When there are meetings for the co-op, we leave our homes, our children, and our husbands. We also walk many hours and some of us on the board [fo directors] live far from our homes," said an
elected board member from Mujures Por la Dignidad between forkfuls of rice and beans.

Coffee workers are also organizing themselves into fair trade co-operatives-or what farmers in Mutz Vitz, the largest Zapatista coffee operation, call "fairer trade"-they are still working long
days and living in poverty. Coffee farmers are among the most radical elements of the Zapatista movement, representing a large portion of those who were armed on New Year's Day 1994.

Throughout the 1970s, the federal government and the IMF used marketing boards, training incentives, and loan guarantees to entice subsistence corn farmers to grow coffee for export. When Vietnam entered coffee production under IMF dictums, causing a massive devaluation of world coffee prices, coffee growers became among the most angry and desperate of a population already facing "acute marginalization", as defined by the Mexican government.

The state of Chiapas produces 55 percent of Mexico's hydroelectric power, yet 30 percent of homes lack not only electricity, but also running water and sewage. "Power here is taken from the grid. They are always trying to take our electricity. When they cut one [power line] we just set up another," said a representative from Santa Catalonia.

When electrical workers come to cut the power, as they tried on February 16th, 2004, women in Santa Catalonia surround the poles, physically stopping the electricians from climbing down until the
power is reconnected. Many electrical workers now refuse to enter autonomous municipalities for fear of living indefinitely atop a power line.

Red alerts, international networking and a new constitution are important, and will determine what kind of role the Zapatistas will play as a political movement outside their Chiapenco strongholds.
But it is the schools, clinics, co-operatives, workshops, "high quality public services" and community organizing that rebut the rhetoric of "a revolution that couldn't deliver"-and prove another
world really may be possible in the Zapatistas' Chiapas.




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